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Wednesday, September 1, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Vanity Fair": We're putty in player's determined, dainty hands

Seattle Times movie critic

Born in poverty to an artist and an opera chorine, Becky Sharp had never been a girl; she was, according to her creator William Makepeace Thackeray, a woman since she was 8 years old. A pale, slender creature with alluringly downcast eyes, the orphaned Becky emerges at age 19 from Miss Pinkerton's academy for young ladies — where she worked for her keep — into early 19th-century England, ready to use her smile and her wits to ascend to the upper classes, by whatever means necessary.

She is, in other words, a player, and "Vanity Fair" — both the Thackeray novel and the Mira Nair movie opening today — is a play in the very best sense of the world. The book, written several decades after the period in which it is set, is a gloriously clattering pageant, a tale spun by an all-knowing, opinionated narrator who calls himself Manager of the Performance, and populated by a bevy of flawed but irresistible characters. Its 800-plus pages, crammed with description, reflection and enough plot to sink a less skillfully steered ship, present a daunting challenge for feature-film adaptation.

And indeed, nobody's tried it since the 1930s (though there have been several television miniseries based on the novel, which have the luxury of more screen time). Perhaps it was just waiting for Mira Nair, the India-born (like Thackeray) filmmaker known for the colorful swirl of her films, such as "Monsoon Wedding" and "Kama Sutra." Along with screenwriter Julian Fellowes, an Oscar-winner for "Gosford Park" (who did a rewrite on the original screenplay by Matthew Faulk and Mark Skeet), she's created a pared-down but wonderfully cluttered rendition of Thackeray's work, beautifully acted by a dream troupe of performers.

Movie review


Showtimes and trailer

***
"Vanity Fair," with Reese Witherspoon, Eileen Atkins, Jim Broadbent, Gabriel Byrne, Romola Garai, Bob Hoskins, Rhys Ifans, Geraldine McEwan, James Purefoy, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. Directed by Mira Nair, from a screenplay by Matthew Faulk, Mark Skeet and Julian Fellowes, based on the novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. 137 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some sensuality/partial nudity and a brief violent image. Several theaters.

Reese Witherspoon, the lone American in the cast, struggles a bit with her accent but is otherwise delightful as Becky — with her determined chin and never-miss-a-thing gaze, she's got just the right sort of angelic naughtiness. (Even her teeth look sharp.) Though Becky is an actress, Witherspoon's performance never feels actressy; she's found a tiny core of vulnerability in her anti-hero heroine and built a fortress around it. "I could be good, for five thousand a year," says Becky, in a dazzling blue gown, and she almost believes it.

Romola Garai, as Becky's hopelessly sweet friend Amelia, is winsomeness personified; with her slight lisp and adorably goofball air, she's like a British Joan Cusack. The cast's young men (James Purefoy as Rawdon Crawley; Jonathan Rhys-Meyers as George Osborne) are perhaps a bit contemporary in their look and delivery but are nonetheless dashing. And the supporting cast is packed with splendid turns. Eileen Atkins, as shrewish spinster Matilda Crawley, displays an uncanny gift for freezing in horror ("A tradesman's son?"). Jim Broadbent, as George's father, bracingly blusters.

Nair fills the screen with color and richness; with peacocks strolling across the lawns alongside the vibrantly costumed cast. (At an elegant party late in the film, the ladies resemble those very birds, with their long, elegant necks and elaborate plumage.) And while a Bollywood dance number performed by Becky, in the film's final act, feels a bit out of place, the film's charm has already taken hold; by this point, we're Becky's (and Nair's) willing admirers, ready to go along with whatever she wants.

Make no mistake; "Vanity Fair" the movie takes many liberties with "Vanity Fair" the book, as indeed it must. But the sense of Becky's long man-by-man climb up the ladder of ambition — and the narrative's ultimate ambivalence toward the journey — shines as brightly as the jewels she finally wears. There's a lovely moment early in the film, not from the book, that sold it for me: sad-eyed Becky, still a child (played by Angelica Mandy), arrives unhappily at Miss Pinkerton's school. She wanders away from the adults and finds herself in a large, empty room — perhaps a ballroom, perhaps a place where dreams someday might come true. She wanders in the room, lost in possibility. The journey begins, and we're on it with her.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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